It has taken me over 14 years, with numerous setbacks along the way (some bizarre, some mundane), but, as of today, I am a Canadian citizen. I cried most of the way through the (Zoom) ceremony, and completely choked up singing the anthem.
I love Canada. I love that Canadian culture is guilty deep to its very heart (sorry), that caring for your neighbour is fundamental to our (yes, our!) identity, that line-ups last forever because everyone in front of you is having a fine and leisurely conversation with the person serving them, even in the biggest cities. I love waiting to cross a road on the corner of an empty street where a single truck heads nervously towards you half a kilometre away, but we all know the rules and it just works better that way. I love hockey, and the fact that the only riot I have ever seen here was when the Canucks (just, at the last possible moment) lost the Stanley Cup Final, but that half the city was up before work the next morning cleaning up the mess. I love the vast, vast land. I don’t think I’ll ever understand Tim Horton’s (really? Is that pale brown water actually coffee and what kind of doughnut doesn’t go bad for over a year?) but I love that it is so deeply embroiled with what it means to be Canadian that the awfulness of the coffee and doughnuts doesn’t matter. I love that there’s a hairdresser on every corner but that everyone’s haircut looks like it was done by their kids. I love the fact that diversity is a cause for celebration and delight, not division. I love plaid. I love that Canadians will describe themselves as German, or Scottish, or Polish, or pretty much anything (though almost never English) other than Canadian, even though the last person in their family to actually live elsewhere died a century ago. I love that I live in a city where over half the population was not born here. I love poutine, and mac n cheese, and beaver tails. I love that, wandering past my home in the very heart of a huge city are skunks, raccoons and coyotes, while seals, the occasional whale, beavers, and otters swim by, and giant bald eagles circle constantly overhead, eternally plagued by crows and seagulls trying to chase them from the sky. I love that everyone knows at least one person called Gord. I love that Canada is not America, and that’s part of the definition. I love that a gang of teenagers on a street corner will invariably wish you well and help you out rather than abuse you. I like maple syrup. I love maple leaves. I even like the anthem, though the words could do with far fewer gods and (in the French version) way less swords.
I could do without every second vehicle being a poorly driven truck or an SUV, the deep and unresolvable guilt at the horrific way indigenous people have been treated and continue to suffer, the mega-scale rape of the land that persists to this day, the many nonsensical practices and cultural quirks caught like diseases from south of the border, the fact that any prepared foodstuff contains more salt than food, and a few other things. But abhorring such things is quite Canadian, too.
I do miss the good-natured cruelty and friendly belligerence of old Blighty, the blithe disregard of rules, the bitingly dark humour, and cask beer in nearly every pub that won’t plaster you to the floor after a single cold, fizzy, strong yet peculiarly flavourless pint (and it’s an actual pint, where ‘pint’ means exactly the same thing literally everywhere). And, though a proper, salt-of-the-earth Canadian pub is a truly wonderful thing, I miss those English pubs – real pubs that smell of history and tobacco smoke (despite that smokers now smoke outside), where no one cares whether you are still working on your food or expects a tip for asking it. I miss the word ‘fuck’ used as a punctuation mark in every sentence, and ‘cunt’ used as a term of endearment. I miss the layer upon endless layer of the past that oozes out of every tiny cranny, and fills every little nook with tired ghosts that cling to the living. I miss the fact that people are bound together by mutual gloom or shared hatred of everyone else, but that there’s something chummy in it, a sort of kindness, a recognition of shared adversity that runs deep. And I miss the NHS.
But, on balance, I’d really much rather be here, and I am very proud indeed to be a citizen of the wonderful, apologetic, law-abiding, kindly mosaic that is Canada. It’s good to be Canadian, eh?
Life in Canada is, generally speaking, wonderful when compared with life in the UK but, as well as the loved ones I miss, there are a few everyday things that I yearn for from the old country, most often connected with food or drink. I am reminded on this sunny day in late August of the meal that I miss most: the Ploughman’s Lunch. I almost wrote ‘the traditional Ploughman’s Lunch’ but Ploughman’s Lunches are not really traditional, though they are loosely based on what rural workers ate and drank for centuries. The term and the dish were invented by a cheese marketing board in the late 1950s, and enthusiastically promoted for sale in pubs – usually with a glass of ale or cider – as a more substantial and satisfying alternative to traditional pies and sandwiches, but just as easy for inexpert pub staff with no proper kitchen to prepare. They have been almost ubiquitous in English pubs for my entire life. I know of a handful of pubs in Greater Metro Vancouver that purport to serve them but, without exception, even when they do other British dishes like bangers and mash, toad in the hole, Shepherd’s Pie, and so on well, they are not even close to the real thing and are almost guaranteed to disappoint. A couple of ‘British’ pubs in Victoria get pretty close, with something you might find in a mediocre chain pub in the UK, but none do it right.
So here, in case any pub owners in Vancouver or the surrounding area ever get to read it, is how you do it right…
Two or three really thickly cut slices or wedges of crusty bread (but not the sort of crust that will break your teeth). Not toast (though very light toasting may be OK if the bread is not completely fresh), not thin-sliced bread, no fancy flavours or additions, definitely not wraps or flatbreads. The perfect bread is an English cottage loaf or similar, wholemeal or otherwise. Sourdough is acceptable, a baguette works if it is really fresh, or a country loaf inspired by French, Italian, or similar traditions can substitute well. A nice roll – ciabatta or similar – may do at a pinch (that is what is in the image above, and it was quite pleasant). Not optional.
A small tub of soft (but not too soft) cultured butter (never margarine, never uncultured butter – almost all butter served in the UK is cultured, but it is not the default here in Canada). A handful of foil packets of Anchor butter or similar are acceptable and commonplace (see image above). Not optional.
A substantial wedge of sharp, well-aged Cheddar or similar hard cheese. Shouldn’t be the shrink-wrapped supermarket variety unless you cannot find anything better. Stilton is a good alternative/addition (as in the image above). Not optional.
A wedge or two of Melton Mowbray pork pie (the best) or other meat product such as the sausage in the image above. Optional.
A generous, thick-cut slice or two of slightly chewy baked ham. Never, ever, ever, substitute the pasty gelatinous mechanically recovered slices that come in plastic boxes at your local supermarket, or turkey slices (though a good chunk of smoked turkey from a delicatessen works well), or thin-sliced charcuterie meats, pastrami, salami, etc. Optional.
A dob of intensely hot Coleman’s English mustard or similar. Only needed (in tiny quantities) if you are having the ham, pork pie, sausage, etc. Don’t substitute Dijon, German, grainy, or other mild, vinegary alternatives unless you really can’t stand the intensity of proper English mustard.
A pickled onion or two. Not optional. I prefer strong pickled onions but medium strength will do. Do not substitute cocktail onions, or mild pickled onions, and especially do not even consider substituting dill pickles or gherkins. How could you even think of such a thing? I’m looking at you, Vancouver pubs.
Plenty of proper, dark brown, crunchy, chunky, richly flavoured Branston pickle (not the weird light-brown goop that tends to be sold in many Canadian stores – many supermarkets now stock the real thing, made by Crosse & Blackwell, usually in the British part of the ‘ethnic food’ section). Heinz, Waitrose, or Marks & Spencer Ploughman’s pickle will do at a pinch. Not optional. Do not substitute chutney or other sweet goo, especially if flavoured with cinnamon or other strong, fragrant spices. A really good, sharp, crunchy mango chutney, though, with a not-too-sweet sauce might be OK if you really hate Branston.
Some good, sharp, bright, chunky, crunchy piccalilli. Optional (good if you are having the ham or pork pie).
A fairly plain, leafy salad with lettuce, tomatoes, some red or other mild onion, maybe some cucumber, perhaps a sprig or two of parsley as a garnish. Go light on the dressing, if you use any at all. Mayonnaise may be provided on the side. Not optional. Do not substitute coleslaw, exotic leaves, potato salad, caesar salad, etc. Keep it simple, keep the ingredients distinct.
A few other ingredients may be added or, sometimes, substituted to taste, such as a Scotch egg, a gherkin or two, perhaps some coleslaw, maybe a British banger or similar sausage, maybe a boiled or pickled egg, possibly some black pudding or liver sausage/pate, perhaps a bit of game pie instead of pork pie; certainly an alternative or additional hard or semi-hard cheese or two (Caerphilly, Red Leicester, Wensleydale, Cheshire, Gloucester, etc); perhaps a slice or two of thickly cut cold roast beef (horseradish optional, otherwise mustard) or cold roast lamb (with mustard or mint sauce), or maybe a chicken or turkey drumstick (lovely with Branston) instead of ham; perhaps a chutney (as well as, not instead of, Branston), maybe some pickled beetroot, perhaps some watercress, radish, cress, celery, etc in the salad.
Never serve any ingredients hot, though the bread can benefit from being a little warm.
Don’t overdo it. The best Ploughmans tend to keep things fairly simple, with two or three main proteins, in chunks or wedges or thick slices, good bread, a simple salad, pickled onion, and Branston or Ploughman’s Pickle, with only a smattering of signature embellishments to complement the main centrepieces.
Absolutely essential, and not optional, it must be paired with the right drink…
The perfect accompaniment is real English bitter, pulled from a barrel (cask), never from a keg, bottle, or can, served at cellar temperature (not warm, not room temperature, certainly not cold, just a little cool), with the lightest ring of froth, not completely flat but with no visible bubbles (the texture of velvet), and no more than 4% alcohol. A mild or IPA will do just as well, though remember that, in England, a really strong IPA is around 4.5%. You could substitute Guinness or similar stout if you wish. If that’s not possible, a cask-style nitro can (Kilkenny is the most common brand sold here) is better than nothing, though not ideal. Avoid anything with bubbles. If you don’t like beer, scrumpy (the real stuff, never fizzy, always cloudy, always dry), or a proper French cider or similar will do. Beware the alcohol content of real scrumpy, if you can find it here: you can drink it as easily as orange juice, and it hardly tastes alcoholic at all, but it will flatten you faster than hard liquor. Red wine is acceptable. If you don’t want alcohol, a glass of real lemonade is not a bad substitute, or perhaps a jug of water with a slice of cucumber or mint, or maybe a lime juice cordial or lemon barley water. Avoid anything sweet or fizzy or very strongly flavoured, unless you are sure the flavour will complement the dish (red wine is normally good because it cuts through the fatty, protein rich ingredients, much like the pickle components of the meal).
Serve it on a large, plain, white china plate, with a knife, fork, and cloth napkin. Use a wooden platter if you must, but only if you are a stockbroker, social media influencer or advertising executive. Do not use slate, stone, or fancy porcelain.
Assemble and eat the ingredients in any order or combination you like. Experiment with different combinations. Use your fingers for most of it (including pickled onions, chunks of cheese, pie, meat, sausage, etc as well as the bread). Expect things to get messy. You’ll probably need that cloth napkin.
Eat it in a leafy grassy pub garden on a lazy sunny, but not too hot, day, if possible surrounded by trees, hedges, or a crumbling brick wall. A babbling brook helps. If possible, sit at an untreated wooden bench. Beware of sparrows. In times of covid, eating inside is inadvisable anyway but, if you must, find a sheltered nook.
Do not, under any circumstances, add TV screens, piped music, or music to dance to. A little live light jazz, folk, or classical music is acceptable if you can still hear the bees buzzing in the garden. If you can add the very lightest hint of cigarette and/or cigar smoke in the air, that’s a plus.
Do not expect to tip your server, do not expect your server to ask if you are still working on it, do not expect your server to clear away your plate while you are still chewing. In fact, do not necessarily expect a server at all: you might have to order and pick it up from the bar, along with your beer. This is fine.
Add perfect company, relax, and enjoy. If you finish it before you’ve had time to order a second pint then you are eating too fast, drinking too slow, or there’s something wrong with the portion size. Take your time. This is a meal to be savoured, not devoured.
As an English native living in Vancouver there are a few tastes that I occasionally miss from the old country – pickled onions, pork pies, piccalilli, Branston, Marmite, bangers, pasties, black pudding, etc. Though some are hard to find, I have found sources where I can get at least a very close approximation of all of these when I feel the craving but, until yesterday, had never found a decent English beer. Yesterday I discovered Callister Brewing, a small cooperative brewery in Vancouver that opens for business a few afternoons and early evenings a week and, at last, my search is over. The Burnley Bastard Mild is brilliant. It’s a perfect English pint, served as it should be, pulled from real taps, not squirted under pressure from buttons, slightly cool but not cold, frothy but not fizzy. And, at a pleasant 3% alcohol, sacrificing no flavour or body, you can drink it with pleasure without being drunk after the first couple of pints. I’ve tried a lot of Vancouver beers, including some decent enough cask ales, and have found a few good beers of this nature in other parts of the country (Toronto and Victoria are well served) but all till now have been just a little too cold, a little too strong and/or a little too fizzy. I can safely say this is by far the best beer I have ever tasted in this country. The bitter is not bad either – hoppy and full of flavour, stronger, fizzier, catering more to Canadian tastes, but at least as good as the best I have found elsewhere. The ambiance of the brewery is pure Vancouver and not remotely like an English pub (nothing really is), but it’s a darn good ambiance.
I’m still looking for a proper ploughman’s lunch though.